British Empire Books

The Horns of the Buffalo

AuthorJohn Wilcox
ISBN No.0755309820

This book launches the character and career of Simon Fonthill of the 24th Foot. The horns of the buffalo refers to the Zulu main battle tactic which was used so effectively at Isandlwana. Fonthill is of course a promising junior officer but who has an unexplainable medical incident that causes some to doubt his efficacy and suitableness for the army. It also launches him on a more unusual task to gather intelligence before the invasion of Zululand in 1879. He becomes embroiled in internal politics and becomes a prisoner of King Cetewayo. He does manage to escape but leaves the frying pan to enter the fire of the Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. The timing is of course a little 'convenient' but credulity is never stretched to breaking point. At least the author refrains from making him one of the decisive actors of these famous engagements. The events are probably too well known even by a general public to stretch real life events too far. Indeed, this is probably the main strength of this work of fiction. In that he interleaves fact and fiction in just the right doses. He certainly mentions in passing some good historical information - about the colouration of shields, of the narcotics imbibed by Zulus before battles, etc - but he drips them in at a sensible and restrained manner which informs but does not overwhelm and consume the story.

Personally, I don't like lovey-dovey romantic escapades that seem to be compulsory to historical fiction of the Nineteenth Century and this story is no exception. There is the ambitious young lady who wants to succeed in a man's world and is prepared to bend the rules to get what she wants. There is also a young half Zulu girl who goes in over her head. I would have liked to have skipped these scenes but they are too germaine to the plot to avoid. In fact it is the presence of too many liberal/progressive characters that is the one weakness of the book. Again, historical dramas written in the Twenty-first Century seem to need to have characters that are acceptable to the modern world rather than one who is typical of his or her era. The notable exception to this rule is the Flashman character of George Macdonald Fraser. The views of the main protagonists do seem to grate against the era even if they are more acceptable to us as heroes. Of course the baddies of the book are more likely to have the racist, classist attitudes of their era and so are easier to dislike! I suppose for a mass consumption novel this should not be surprising but I still do wish that it were otherwise.

Given my reservations do I recommend this book. In a word yes. I found the author's style very accommodating and the text flowed nicely. The plot was not too tightly tied to the famous battles and there were enough twists and turns to hold my attention to the end of the book. I do have reservations but I still look forward to following the career of Simon Fonthill through the rest of the Nineteenth Century.

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by Stephen Luscombe